I recently attended a wine tasting at Winnipeg’s MLCC Grant Park education centre. Titled A-B-C: Anything But Cabernet and Chardonnay, it was an exploration of other varietals. It also touched on new trends in wine production and packaging.
As much as it got me thinking about branching out a little in my purchasing habits varietal wise, it liberated me as a day to day wine consumer by forcing me to re-consider my position on those new-fangled wine packages. You know what I mean–boxes (eek), cartons (oh my)…and (gasp) cans!
My take-away…get over yourself, don’t knock ’em till you try ’em, embrace the new trends in wine packaging.
Consumer rejection of some of these new trends stems from basically two assumptions: 1) only cheap, nasty wines are packaged this way; or, 2) the wine can’t properly age in a box, can or what have you.
1) Producers of some actually decent wines are increasingly turning to these alternate packages. 2) Most wine is consumed within hours or days of purchase (certainly true in my household) so the ageing thing…not really an issue.
So what are these trends. Well, you’re probably familiar with some, others are no doubt coming to a liquor mart near you.
1. Traditional Cork
Cork is a spongy bark that’s harvested from a type of oak tree which grows only near the Mediterranean. It takes about 25 years for the tree to mature enough for harvest and will only produce a yield every 8 – 12 years on average.
Demand has outstripped supply thanks to global growth of wine consumption, and production. Cork prices have jumped. Today, a good cork can cost anywhere from 2-15 dollars.
2. Composite Corks
Waste not want not…cork producers have taken to mulching leftover materials, adding a bonding agent and compressing the mixture under thousands of tons of force to create laminate sheets from which composite corks are punched. They breathe as well as natural cork, and in many cases, provide a superior seal.
3. Synthetic Cork
Supply and demand aside, there’s considerable debate concerning natural cork taint because of questionable harvest and manufacture methods. Part answer to a vacuum of supply, and part attempt to build a better closure, synthetic corks have emerged as a potential solution. Critics argue that synthetic corks don’t seal like the real deal. And the major down side here is environmental impact. Made from plastic composites, these things aren’t biodegradable. According to a study commissioned by Amorim (the world’s largest cork manufacturer so you’ll note the obvious bias here) plastic stoppers are nine times more damaging to the environment than cork.
4. Screw Caps
Synthetic or natural, I like the pomp and circumstance of uncorking a bottle; I enjoy the ceremony of using a cork screw–undressing the foil neck, twisting the opener into the cork, easing it to the point of release.
A twist off just isn’t the same. It rips free of the snap ring and that’s it…you’re done. Talk about anti-climax. But the twist cap, or Stelvin, has gained mainstream acceptance and does offer a few advantages: you don’t need special hardware; it’s a superior seal to cork; and, should one be in the unfortunate position to have left-over wine, it easily re-seals. Critics argue that it doesn’t breathe and allow the wine to develop. But the wine still ages, just slower.
Leave it to those innovators down under. Australian winemakers were early adopters of the aluminum can. Makes sense. If you have to ship your product to markets thousands of miles away, a light, robust container is highly desirable. Not to be outdone, the French have procured several wines in resealable aluminum bottles. A oenophile with a penchant for the back country, I’m sure I’m not alone in discovering that the same attributes that make aluminum containers ideal for shipping, make them great for outdoor excursions.
7. Plastic Bottles
These are still the provenance of truly maverick producers, but they’re bound to enter the Canadian market soon enough. They’re lightweight and durable, so have the shipping advantage, but it’s plastic…not eco-friendly in production or recycling (both of which release harmful chemicals), and with a bio-degradable half-life of about 5000 years, they’re essentially non-disposable. Early critics also argue that the all-plastic bottle suffers from limited shelf, likely due to its relatively porous composition.
8. Tetra and Tetra-prisma Packs
Already used extensively in other products like broth, soup, juice and milk, the tetra, and somewhat more stylish tetra-prisma pack has already hit liquor store shelves. Lightweight and space efficient, they’re made of 70 per cent paper (a renewable resource) so recyclable and/or biodegradable. Unlike the juice box and stock pack, no straws or scissors needed…this generation of tetra features resealable screw cap lids.
The lightest packaging option developed to date, wine pouches represent significant carbon savings on the shipping end. The manufacturer also boasts that these represent a 90 per cent reduction in landfill. Sounds great, but the pouch is made from a three layered metalized polythene. That’s plastic, environmentally harmful in production, and as it happens, that same non-bio-degradable plastic as the billions of shopping bags that already choke our landfills, greenspaces and oceans.
10. Bag in Box or Bag in Tube
Ahh yes, the box of wine. No longer the ubiquitous brick of sickly swill your parents drank at Christmas and Thanksgiving, wines of character are popping up in cubes and tubes. Like the pouch, the bag in box still features a metalized polyethylene bladder, but it’s a lightweight, single-layered system. Lowbrow as they may seem, bagged wine never gets exposed to the air as you pour, so doesn’t oxidize. The contents will retain that just opened freshness for weeks, if not months. The bag in box cuts cost for the producer, savings that are passed on to you, and saves the environment, representing half the carbon footprint of bottles.
The trend away from glass in the first place was due to relatively high costs of production and transportation. It’s a shame, because it’s infinitely re-usable and adequately recyclable. Understanding the old adage “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” eco-conscious California producer Fetzer hit upon a simple and elegant solution–reduced thickness bottles. They use 16 per cent less glass, saving money, and the environment.
12. Bottle Your Own
The best way to avoid the costs of shipping the packaging medium along with the product is to not ship the packaging medium in the first place. The Manitoba Liquor Mart at Winnipeg’s Madison Square boasts the Bottle and Cork facility, allowing you to bottle your own. The wine is shipped in bulk and stored in giant tanks. It’s truly a bulk solution, so you do have to buy in case lots of 12. But in the long run, at $5.99 a bottle you’re saving your own bottom line and the environment. Choose from a fine selection of five vareitals–Shiraz, Trebbiano, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and a Merlot/Cabernet blend.